Robert Johnson is classic Americana in addition to being the first rock star -a seemingly modern legend nevertheless steeped in ancient tradition. Johnson died at the age of 27 virtually unknown but would become a legend several decades later during the rise of rock 'n roll. The noted rock historian Grail Marcus writes:
"Robert Johnson was a Mississippi country blues singer and guitarist, born in 1911; he was murdered, by a jealous husband, in 1938. He died in a haze: if some remember that he was stabbed, others say he was poisoned; that he died on his hands and knees, barking like a dog; that his death 'had something to do with the black arts.'"Johnson's legendary guitar skills are what inspired speculation of 'the black arts.'
(Mystery Train, pg. 20)
"When he first appeared Robert couldn't play guitar to save his life, Son House told Pete Welding; Johnson hung out with the older bluesmen, pester them for a chance to try his hand, and after a time he went away. It was months later, on a Saturday night, when they saw him again, still looking to be heard. They tried to put him off, but he persisted finally, they let him play for a lull and left him alone with the tables and chairs.
"Outside, taking the air, House and the others heard a loud, devastating music of a brilliance and purity beyond anything in the memory of the Mississippi Delta. Johnson had nothing more to learn from them.
"'He sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that,' House told Welding."
(ibid, pg. 28)
In a typical account, this Faustian pact is usually struck at a crossroads. Johnson arrives a little before midnight, and begins to play his guitar when the clock strikes twelve. A large black man arrives, takes the guitar from Johnson and plays a few licks, then hands it back and the deal is sealed. The crossroads where Johnson made his deal are usually located just outside of Clarksville, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee. However, this legend was originally attributed to another bluesman, Tommy Johnson (no relation), and not Robert. From Wikipedia:
"Most significantly, the detail was added that Johnson received his gift from a large black man at a crossroads. There is dispute as to how and when the crossroads detail was attached to the Robert Johnson story. All the published evidence, including a full chapter on the subject in the biography Crossroads by Tom Graves, suggests an origin in the story of Blues musician Tommy Johnson. This story was collected from his musical associate Ishman Bracey and his elder brother Ledell in the 1960s. One version of Ledell Johnson's account was published in 1971 David Evans's biography of Tommy, and was repeated in print in 1982 alongside Son House's story in the widely read Searching for Robert Johnson."
If Johnson actually made a Faustian pact, it occurred in a graveyard, and not at a crossroads.
"Almost every great early bluesman was said to have a shadowy teacher who provided instructions in both musical technique and the black arts, and Johnson, it seems, was no different: after being chased off as an incompetent by the ruling Delta players, Johnson returned to Hazelhurst, where he spent his early childhood, and (to quote Robert Palmer) came under the 'tutelage of a musician named Ike Zinnerman, who was from Alabama and claimed to have learned to play while visiting graveyards at midnight.' Zinnerman never recorded, so one can only guess at the sounds he made -but Johnson came back from Hazelhurst a titan. He attracted international attention in his lifetime: an item from a 1937 issue of Melody Maker , the British music weekly, referred to him as 'the star' of Hot Springs... Shortly before his death, Johnson reportedly formed a band, drums included; there are even claims he was using an electric pickup on his guitar. These developments by themselves would not have been unknown... But the rhythmic structures of Johnson's songs suggest that any band of his would have been making music recognizable as rock 'n' roll -full blown, not protean rock 'n' roll -at least by 1938, the year he was murdered."
(Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, pg. 187-188)
Johnson would not just craft a kind of proto-rock 'n roll musically, but he would also define the lifestyle with his womanizing, boozing, and sudden death. The endless travel and one night stands would be instrumental in the 'rambling man' mythos of rock 'n roll.
"When Robert Johnson traveled through the Deep South, over to Texas and back to Memphis, into the Midwest and up to Chicago, across the border to Canada and back to Detroit to sing spirituals on the radio, to New York City (the sight of this primitive blues singer gazing up at the lights of Times Square is not only banal, it is bizarre), to the South again, he was tracing not only the miles on the road but the strength of its image. It was the ultimate American image of flight from homelessness, and he always looked back: the women he left, or who left him, chased through the gloomy reveries of his songs, just as one of them eventually caught up. Like a good American, Johnson lived for the moment and died for the past."He was both a martyr to music as well as the first musician to 'sell their soul for rock 'n' roll,' to paraphrase the Black Sabbath greatest hits album.
(ibid, pgs. 24-25)
"... the combination of voice, guitar, words, and the mythical authority that comes when an artist confirms his work with his life -that made Eric Clapton see Johnson's ghost, and his own, in Jimi Hendrix's death. 'Eric wanted to do a Robert Johnson,' one of Clapton's friends said when Hendrix died. 'A few good years, and go.'"
(ibid, pg. 27)
Hendrix, in addition to Elvis, Jim Morrison, and even John Lennon (and many more), would follow some variation of the path Johnson blazed in their ritual-like deaths. Thus one of the most enduring modern myths was born.
What I find most striking, however, about the modern legend of Robert Johnson is how rooted in ancient tradition it actually is.
Music in and of itself is closely linked to the ancient Mystery schools in the occult.
"It is highly probable that the Greek initiates gained their knowledge of the philosophic and therapeutic aspects of music from the Egyptians, who, in turn, considered Hermes the founder of the art. According to one legend, this god constructed the first lyre by stretching strings across the concavity of a turtle shell. Both Isis and Osiris were patrons of music and poetry. Plato, in describing the antiquity of these arts among the Egyptians, declared that songs and poetry had existed in Egypt for at least ten thousand years, and that these were of such exalted and inspiring nature that only gods or godlike men could have composed them. In the Mysteries the lyre was regarded as the secret symbol of the human constitution, the body of the instrument representing the physical form, the strings the nerves, and the musician the spirit. Playing upon the nerves, the spirit thus created the harmonies of normal functioning, which, however, became discords if the nature of man were defiled."Note that we find our first link to ancient Egypt when considering the Johnson myth. We also find our old friend Hermes lurking about. I have written more on Hermes and his numerous guises, be it Thoth, Mercury, Enoch, or Metatron, here. In brief, I have stated Hermes is a Trickster god, and the patron of the Otherside.
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P Hall, pg. 249-250)
"Like Coyote, Raven, and Hare -those North American Indian clowns-cum-culture-heroes -Hermes is a Trickster. It is as difficult for us to countenance Tricksters as it is daimons: our monotheism, whether Christianity or Science, has excluded them. So Hermes is forced to operate from the Underworld, to shadow Christianity in esoteric, 'occult' Gnostic and Hermetic philosophies. As his Latin counterpart, Mercurius, he is the soul of alchemy. He returns to torment scientism with paranormal phenomena and maddening anomalies -all daimons are tricksters, as the fairies are; all are in the pay of Hermes-Mercurius."
(Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur, pgs. 166-167)
Keep Hermes in mind as we shall be running into him again a little further down. But for now, I want to write about wandering musicians. In the UK, from antiquity on into the Middle Ages, they were generally referred to as bards, and were believed to possess hidden knowledge that was incorporated into their songs.
"These poets were held in high honor by the Britons, for among a barbarous people musicians are angels who bring to them a language from the other world, and who alone can soften their iron hearts and fill their bold blue eyes with gentle tears...
"The Bards from what we can learn of them, neither debased their art to calumny nor to adulation, but were in every way as worthy of our admiration as those profound philosophers to whom alone they were inferior."
(The Veil of Isis, William Winwood Reade, pgs. 48-50)
In central Europe these wandering pickers were called troubadours and also carried on a hidden tradition.
"During the Middle Ages the troubadours of Central Europe preserved in song the legends of this Egyptian goddess. They composed sonnets to the most beautiful woman in the world. Though few ever discovered her identity, she was Sophia, the Virgin of Wisdom, whom all the philosophers of the world have wooed."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P Hall, pg. 132)
Again with Egypt. Its very fitting indeed that Robert Johnson is considered a Delta blues artists. From Wikipedia:
"The Delta blues is one of the earliest styles of blues music. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region of the United States that stretches from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south, the Mississippi River on the west to the Yazoo River on the east. The Mississippi Delta area is famous both for its fertile soil and its poverty. Guitar, harmonica and cigar box guitar are the dominant instruments used, with slide guitar (usually on the steel guitar) being a hallmark of the style. The vocal styles range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery."The word delta originates from Egypt, and refers to the fertile area around the Nile. Nile delta imagery was heavily adopted into the occult. The word alchemy comes from the Arab phrase 'al-kimia.' The root of kimia is the Coptic word khem, which, exoterically, is the black soil of the Nile delta. Esoterically it refers to the mysterious First Matter, known as the Khem. It's color, black, is also the first stage of an alchemical working.
The Nile delta area is also closely linked with the dog star Sirius, the rising of which was often followed by flooding.
"We have already looked at the significance of Sirius in the astrological tradition, and observed that it still carries some of its early Egyptian associations. These associations are even more deeply expressed in the Masonic view of the star. In his exposition of the ancient Mysteries, of 1835, Fellows not only linked the blazing star of the Craft with the 'Egyptian star,' Sirius, but further explained the veneration in which this is held in Masonic circles by reference to the fact that the rising of the dog star forewarned of the flooding of the Nile... Fellows was writing symbolically, of a nonliquid 'Flood' of anarchy threatening his own world."
(The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital, David Ovason, pg. 245)
A good portion of Johnson's life unfolded in a region of the United States known as 'Little Egypt.' It stretches roughly from Cairo, Illinois a hundred miles south to Memphis, Tennessee. All along this region are towns bearing Egyptian themed names. Researchers such as Michael A Hoffman have suggested that there was a Masonic purpose behind the naming.
"The Temple is the alchemical project in microcosm, the yin and yang of Egypt's Hermetic Shepherd of Hermas in whose memory palace the Black and White kings have played fatal chess for centuries, from the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 'Little Egypt' section of Illinois upon which the fate of three wars and countless lives depended, to the ritual assassination of the 'Black King,' Michael/Nitram Luther King Jr. in 'Memphis' (Mizraim)."Another dead king, Elvis, also died in Memphis, Tennessee. Tommy Johnson, whose legend of selling his soul at the crossroads is often attributed to Robert, was recorded in Memphis. Perhaps for this reason Memphis is one of the two cities, along with Clarksville, where the infamous crossroads are said to reside. But the sinister reputation of crossroads has existed since the earliest religions.
(Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, Michael A Hoffman II, pg. 117)
African folk traditions are ripe with trickster gods that inhabit the crossroads. Consider this essay passage from this marvelous site:
"The crossroads is the most popular place to perform a specific hoodoo crossroads ritual to learn a skill -- to play a musical instrument, for instance, or to become proficient at throwing dice, dancing, public speaking, or whatever one chooses. As this ritual is usually described, you bring the item you wish to master -- your banjo, guitar, fiddle, deck of cards, or dice -- and wait at the crossroads on three or nine specified nights or mornings. On your successive visits you may witness the mysterious appearances of a series of animals. On your last visit, a " big black man" will arrive. If you are not afraid and do not run away, he will ask to borrow the item you wish to learn. He will show you the proper way to use the item by using it himself. When he returns it to you, you will suddenly have the gift of greatness.
"The man who meets people at the crossroads and teaches them skills is sometimes called "the devil" He is also called "the rider," the "li'l ole funny boy" or "the big black man," black in this case meaning the actual colour, not a brown-skinned ("coloured" or Negro) person. Because he shares qualities with and derives from a number of African crossroads spirits (of whom Legba, Ellegua, Elegbara, Eshu, Nbumba Nzila, and Pomba Gira are some African and African-diaspora names), it is a common scholarly conceit to equate the crossroads "devil" with Legba, but that is utterly unheard of in the oral folk tradition.
"This African-derived crossroads ritual is one of the most widely distributed beliefs in African-American folklore and is practiced throughout the South. It is the subject of the rest of this essay."
I would suggest my readers take in the entire essay as well as noting the bolded passage above as I shall be addressing it in a moment. But first, a little more on crossroads, in the European tradition. The Greeks had both a male and female deity assigned to the crossroads. The goddess, Hecate, was quite a piece of work.
"Hecate was the Goddess of the Dark of the Moon, the black nights when the moon is hidden. She was associated with deeds of darkness, the Goddess of the Crossways, which were held to be ghostly places of evil magic. An awful divinity,
"Hecate of hell,"Mighty to shatter every stubborn thing."Hark! Hark! her hounds are baying through the town"Where three roads meet, there she is standing."(Mythology, Edith Hamilton, pg. 32)
Naturally the male god of crossroads in ancient Greece would be Hermes, the great Trickster.
The significance of crossroads likely ties in with the concept of 'ley lines' or earth currents, paths of magnetic energy that cover the Earth. Some researchers believe that the temples of the ancient world were situated upon these paths. The tradition continued into Christan times.
"The practice of locating sacred centres in accordance with the flow of terrestrial magnetic current was not confined to prehistoric times, for it appears that every Christian church was similarly sited. The orientation of a church, even its dimensions and architectural plan, was determined by the lines of current, of which the strongest spring is frequently located directly beneath the tower. At this spot the celestial influences, attracted by the spire, combine with the terrestrial force to produce the fusion.
"It becomes apparent that the prehistoric leys and dragon paths of Britain are indeed lines of the earth current. And the most remarkable feature of the whole system is that the paths of underground streams or of magnetic flow are not naturally straight; they spiral and undulate like surface rivers of currents of air; yet the currents that follow prehistoric alignments are as direct and regular below ground as are they leys on the surface. The magnetic centres lie in straight rows across the country with a precision that characterizes human construction rather than the work of nature. In other words, the present pattern of the earth currents in Britain must be of artificial origin."
(The New View Over Atlantis, John Michell, pg. 93)
Presumably areas where leys crossed would be regions of especial power. More information on leys can be found here.
And finally, we come to the 'black man' that approached Robert and/or Tommy Johnson. As noted above, 'black' in this case was not necessarily in reference to the man's skin color. Further, America has a long history of 'dark men' overseeing occult rituals. One of the earliest reported accounts dates back to the Salem witch trials. Initially a South American slave named Tituba was fingered as the ringleader that led the Puritan youth astray, but she claimed there was a greater power at work.
"This is always a stranger, someone from outside the village, and Tituba in her testimony before the magistrates began to point a finger at evil outside influences behind the witchcraft covens in Salem. She claimed that the ringleader of the witches was a 'man in black' who lived in Boston in spirit form, and that they received their instructions to return to Salem and hurt the children living there."
(Sinister Forces Book One, Peter Levenda, pg. 19)
The 'dark man', 'black man', or 'man in black' has been with us for a very long time in America and beyond. He lurks at the cusp of our villages and along our crossroads shortly after midnight. And no matter how much we reassure ourselves that America is the 'new world' we still find it impossible to escape the old, as the legend of Robert Johnson shows. The rock 'n' roll mythology that Johnson helped define is assumed to be a rebellion against the old by most Americans. Rock music -along with blues, jazz, and the like, are seen as a new form for a new world. And yet all we find is a recreation of the ancient troubadour tradition and the ritual workings. Even in modern America, even with the record set straight on the fact's of Johnson's life, the ghosts of ancient Egypt, of Hermes and the men in black cannot be escaped.
Other installments in the 'New World' series can be found here, here, and here.